The History Behind Social Security Disability

Infographic about social security disability

Depending on what type of disability a person has, they may have trouble standing for long periods of time, lifting heavy objects or performing complex tasks. Some people with disabilities also have frequent medical appointments for physical therapy, medication infusions and other treatments. Unfortunately, these circumstances often make it difficult to find and keep a job.

Social Security Disability Insurance, better known as SSDI, provides monthly payments to people who can’t work due to a disability or severe illness. Although the program has existed for over 60 years, not many Americans know how it came about. Keep reading to learn about the history of SSDI and the eligibility requirements.

What Is Social Security Disability?

The SSDI program acts as a safety net for adults with qualifying disabilities. To be eligible for SSDI benefits, you need to earn a certain number of credits while you’re still working. You earn these credits by paying Social Security taxes. If the Social Security Administration determines that you’re eligible for benefits, you’ll receive a monthly payment based on your average earnings. 

Once you receive a payment, you can use the funds as you see fit. These are just a few of the ways people typically spend their SSDI benefits:

  • Groceries
  • Out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Clothing
  • Housing costs
  • Utility bills
  • Toiletries
  • Transportation

The History of Social Security Disability

Although planners recognized the need for disability insurance as early as 1939, the SSDI program didn’t go into effect until 1956. Public officials were focused on the events of World War II, and they also disagreed about the best way to create such a program. At first, planners couldn’t agree on the best way to define a qualifying disability. Some wanted to use a strict definition to prevent too many people from applying for benefits, while others believed that being too strict would cause Congress to pass a law requiring them to expand coverage.

Once World War II ended, the Committee on Ways and Means finally held a hearing to discuss the possibility of creating a national disability benefits program. Planners still couldn’t agree on the best way forward, and few members of Congress were willing to support an initiative that would provide benefits to Americans who weren’t employed. 

Despite these obstacles, the Committee on Ways and Means managed to include disability insurance in the 1949 version of the Social Security bill. Unfortunately, that version of the bill failed. When Congress voted on a new bill in 1950, there was no mention of disability insurance.

The Disability Freeze

In 1952, Congress passed a disability freeze, allowing disabled workers to collect Social Security benefits at their normal retirement age. Social Security payments are typically calculated based on a worker’s average earnings, so the freeze was supposed to prevent disabled Americans from losing some of their retirement benefits. Unfortunately, the disability freeze expired before it went into effect. Some members of Congress also wanted to let states determine who should receive disability benefits.

The Bill Is Approved With An Emphasis on Rehabilitation

During World War II, physicians had to devise effective ways to treat battle wounds in the field. As a result, many medical breakthroughs occurred in the 1940s, prompting doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to explore new frontiers in rehabilitation medicine. Due to this focus on rehabilitation, officials with the Eisenhower Administration wanted to use Social Security money to pay for rehab services instead of providing cash payments to disabled workers.

It wasn’t until 1955 that a Social Security bill with a disability insurance component finally passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives. When the program went into effect, it only provided benefits for workers aged 50 and older. It didn’t cover younger workers or provide any benefits to dependents of disabled workers. 

Eligibility Requirements for SSDI

Infographic of someone researching social security disability

As of March 2023, approximately 159 million Americans receive Social Security Disability benefits. The program has strict eligibility criteria, so simply having a chronic physical or mental health condition isn’t enough to qualify. If you’re unable to work due to a disability, you must meet the following requirements.

Work Credits

As noted earlier, you must earn a certain number of work credits to qualify for SSDI. As of 2023, you get one work credit for every $1,640 in self-employment income or wages you earn, up to a maximum of four credits per year. Most people need at least 40 credits to receive SSDI benefits, but it’s possible to qualify with fewer credits if you become disabled at a younger age. For example, someone who develops a qualifying disability at the age of 21 won’t have 40 work credits even if they’ve worked steadily since they turned 16.

“Substantial Work” Limitations

The Social Security Administration employs claims adjudicators to determine if applicants are eligible for SSDI benefits. Even if you have the minimum number of work credits, you still need to demonstrate that your disability limits your ability to perform “substantial work.” Claims adjudicators consider several factors when determining if someone is capable of performing substantial work despite their physical or mental limitations. These factors include your age, level of education and years of work experience.

Adjudicators also review relevant medical records and contact healthcare providers to gather information about an applicant’s disability. You may qualify for Social Security Disability benefits if you have one of the following:

  • Severe arthritis
  • Stroke
  • Degenerative disk disease
  • Complex fractures that won’t heal
  • Aortic aneurysm
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS)
  • Muscular dystrophy

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, so if you don’t see your condition listed, that doesn’t mean you’re not eligible. SSDI benefits are available to applicants with a wide range of conditions, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, blood disorders, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal disorders and mental illnesses.

Severe Impairment

To qualify for SSDI benefits, you must also have a severe impairment that’s expected to last for at least 12 months and have the impairment for a minimum of 5 months before you can be approved for the program. Therefore, a serious medical condition that clears up after 2 or 3 months isn’t enough to meet the SSDI eligibility criteria.

SSDI: Providing Financial Help For 60 Years 

Social Security Disability Insurance has been providing financial help for people with life-altering disabilities for 60 years. Despite its rough start, many people benefit from the service today to pay their medical bills, groceries, and rent. 

You might also be interested in: What Is Social Security Disability And How To Apply In 6 Steps

Similar Information

Graphic of an older couple raking leaves

5 Volunteer Opportunities with AARP

Volunteering is a perfect way to make a difference in your community, connect with others, and find purpose. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)

Newsletter Opt-in

By joining our newsletter you are acknowledging that you will receive email and/or SMS communication regarding relevant content and offers.

You have Successfully Subscribed!